Chartres' Stained Glass Loses Sheen

Every year, the famous jewel-toned glass that illuminates the interior of the Gothic cathedral of Nôtre Dame de Chartres attracts millions of visitors to France. However, just as this kind of pilgrimage has taken on new and divergent significance from the spiritual and the religious nature it did seven centuries ago, the priceless and ornate windows also lack the luminosity they once demonstrated during the Middle Ages.

Headed by Patrice Calvel, architect-in-chief of the Historical Monuments in France, the Chartres Cathedral restoration team publicized their efforts to raise money to restore the Cathedral’s former grandeur in one of the series of lectures on April 2 held by Harvard’s Committee on Medieval Studies. Financial need aside, the talk updated the attendees on the team’s progress and stressed the importance of broadening the national scope of the project into an international concern.

“Every medium has its own demands, and every object has suffered unique damage... [Chartres’s] windows, so recently dull, now sparkle thanks to the restoration. I am all for it,” History of Art and Architecture A.B. Julia E. Schlozman ’09 said in an email.

Most famous for its extensive collection of stained glass windows, Chartres’ cathedral has been on the list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites since 1979. Since then, active and consistent restoration efforts have rid most of the cathedral’s windows and stonework of grime buildup from the past centuries. In order to sustain the program, non-profit organizations like the American Friends of Chartres (AFC), based in New York, and its French counterpart, Chartres Sanctuaire du Monde (CSM), were founded to seek direct, mostly fiscal contribution to accelerate the process.

“We are a conduit for enabling Americans to contribute to Chartres because those who have been there have been touched by its magic. It’s just very special, and [the cathedral has] always been a mystical place, spiritually and aesthetically,” AFC president Monika Riely says.

Supporters of the cathedral’s restoration urge that although Chartres cathedral is a French building, it possesses intellectual, spiritual, and artistic value for all countries and not just for France or the United States.

“It’s not only for the French people. There are so many people who have visited the Chartres cathedral. It’s a universal issue. Our mission is to make known the present state of the cathedral to complement the French people’s [restoration] work,” CSM president Servane de Layre-Matheus says.

According to sixth-year History of Art and Architecture graduate student, Shirin Fozi, the United States’ interest in the cathedral lies not only in a touristic fascination with centuries-old buildings, but also a deep, historical connection to France.

“You could look at something like the destruction of Reims [Cathedral] in World War I and the reaction in the U.S., suggesting that there is a long history of Americans feeling connected to medieval France, but that’s not a reason why we ‘should’ care. [It’s] just evidence that Americans have long cared about issues of cultural preservation, particularly in France because the US has seen itself as France’s intellectual heir since the days of Franklin and Jefferson,” said Fozi, in an e-mail.

Most of the difficulty with retroactive restoration thus lies not in obtaining moral or financial support, but in dealing with ethical issues of authenticity and the redoing of misguided, past restorative efforts. However, Fozi says that such mistakes are due to the lack of scientific technology required to take on the delicate task of piecing together the original vision of the cathedral. Now with the availability of new and advanced techniques of handling stained glass, restorers can turn their focus to other ideological issues of restoration.

“The main difficulty has been in the ethical decisions that we have had to make with regards to restoring parts of the cathedral. The important thing is to have the mentality of an architect of the past,” Cavel says. “We try to maintain this authenticity by, for example, using stone from the Bercheres quarry, where the original stone for the Chartres cathedral comes from.”

The publicity in the United States has its advantages in targeting a younger audience in an academic context. Institutions like Harvard provide not only the potential for financial investment in the projects, but also an intellectual source for ideas and advancement in education for the monuments.

“Universities provide art-historical and scientific expertise to guide restoration and analyze its results. Even if university affiliates are not directly involved with the restoration itself, many of the people most interested in the restoration of medieval monuments are to be found on college campuses,” said Schlozman. “Besides, it’s always good for art historians inside and outside the academy to talk to one another.”

Echoing Scholzman’s sentiments, Layre-Matheus recognizes that these scholarly discussions begin with the students. While most will not likely be able to contribute significant monetary donations, their enthusiasm and admiration for Chartres Cathedral ensure that conservation efforts will not remain stagnant in the coming generations.

“This is an open activity. We hope that students will also gain interest and that this will perhaps also be a project for the younger generation,” she says.

—Staff writer Minji Kim can be reached at minjikim@fas.harvard.edu.

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